When Only God Forgives made its debut at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, it’s fair to say the reaction was somewhat mixed. Some hooted and derided the film. A few got up and left. Many, on the other hand, championed director Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to his critically-acclaimed Drive, also starring Ryan Gosling.
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, for example, prized the film, and for this writer, it was a disturbing counterpoint to the more commercial Drive – if that film was a sun-drenched dream in which Ryan Gosling played an archetypal male hero, then Only God Forgives is the nightmare: a view of machismo gone horribly awry.
If some critics were appalled by the film, Refn had misgivings of his own. The director’s self-doubt and depression during the making of Only God Forgives is captured for posterity by Liv Corfixen in her documentary My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn. As Refn’s wife, Corfixen has a unique access to the filmmaker in his more private moments, whether it happens to be his long days on set or the occasional moments where he gets to relax at home with his children.
The upheaval of the experience is evident from the very beginning, as Refn relocates his family to a plush high-rise apartment near the film’s location in Bangkok. The director wavers between excitement at his new project – no doubt bolstered by Gosling, who remains an upbeat presence throughout – and utter despair. At one point, he has a producer on video link to reassure him that the film he’s making is even a worthwhile one.
There are funny and revealing incidental moments here and there. Corfixen captures Refn between takes on his movie, mulling over production problems and trying to find last-minute fixes when an action sequence refuses to pan out. Elsewhere, Refn manages to convince Gosling to join him at a film festival, where the organisers have agreed to pay cash if the pair show up and introduce a screening of Drive – the proceeds, Refn says, can go towards Only God Forgives’ dwindling production coffers. In one glorious moment, Cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky shows up to read give Refn and Corfixen a tarot card reading.
In these odd little fragments, the documentary comes to life as a depiction of an artist, his unusual day-to-day existence and his fragile ego. But it’s also somewhat mundane; following Refn from his first few weeks on Only God Forgives to its bruising reception at Cannes, it offers few revelations on a par with such legendary making-of films as Heart Of Darkness, or Lost In La Mancha, the documentary about Terry Gilliam’s calamitous attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
At a shade under 60 minutes, My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn also feels frustratingly undernourished (other than a trailer, the DVD is also devoid of extras). Amid all the domestic tension, we’re given only brief glimpses of Refn’s activities on set, and the film could have benefitted from more of them – and certainly more from the mercurial, mischievous Jodorowsky.
What is interesting about Corfixen’s documentary, however, is its perspective on Refn himself. In public, he often carries himself as a confident, aloof and slightly arrogant auteur; in private, he seems fretful, sometimes bad-tempered, but also disarmingly gentle – an ordinary human being, in short. But the film fails to connect the artist back to his work; it offers no context to the film he’s even making. What made him write it? Why Bangkok? At what point did he begin to lose faith in it? The documentary’s narrative starts too late in the production to answer those questions.
Devotees of Refn’s films will still be interested to observe this fly-on-the-wall view of a brief period in his career. Had it offered more context and detail, My Life Directed could have been a far more comprehensive view of a filmmaker’s job and the toll it takes on his loved ones.
My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn is out on DVD now in the UK.
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